I fell in love with the physicality of asana during an extended bout of anxiety in my life. I was instantly addicted to the sense of calm that permeated me and quieted my mind each time I stepped onto my mat to practice. The quick progress I made in terms of performing asana, that sense of moving forward with purpose (to get my foot behind my head!) was enough to sustain my practice those first couple of years.
The more familiar I became with the asana though, the more walls I ended up ramming in to, and no matter how hard I tried I had to grapple with the realities that I only had so much hamstring length, only had a respectable amount of external rotation available in my hips, only this much flexion available in my shoulders, etc.
I gradually had to accept that the sheer physicality of asana as I had been practicing it, was no longer a stable enough anchor to steady my mind.
Doubt had started to creep in as I saw classmates and students easily surpass my meager capacities. Insecurities deepened as I kept seeing all these images of what advanced practice was supposed to look like.
In hindsight, it’s obvious that I was laboring under an illusion of what I was accomplishing by practicing as I was practicing, a well- intentioned misunderstanding of what yoga practice was all about.
I used to balk at the thought of using props in practice and would recoil whenever my teachers would ascribe me various infirmities that needed propping up. I continued to struggle mightily with using props and being asked to work differently from others in class until it suddenly dawned on me that the props were not training wheels slapped on to my practice to slow or cap what I was doing, but were actually tools meant to elicit additional information, to gather additional data to either validate what I was doing while practicing asana, or help me figure out when what I thought I was doing was different from what I was actually doing on the mat. It helped me identify where effort had to be redoubled or pulled back or sustained or otherwise adapted to meet the demands of the moment.
The use of props did not make my work easier or give me a free pass to just hang out in practice. It helped me awaken and tap into parts of my body that were either sleepy or sometimes even completely obstructed from view. The new awareness that props brought into my practice became a very tangible and immersive anchor for my mind.
By approaching asana from different tacks and angles, I began to discern a vastly different landscape, and gained a more holistic, three- dimensional appreciation of the corporal work in asana. Blocks, straps, blankets, chairs — all these props helped me recognize the value of seeking direct, correct and more often than not, unflattering truths, and have, over time, given me a measure of discipline to seek out the same kind of extensive and validated knowledge before charting a course of action.
In embracing working with various props as tools for gathering data, I began to notice many discrepancies between what I thought and maybe imagined was happening and what was actually happening when I practiced, and knowing this completely changed the way I was practicing.
Through the years of utilizing props in practice, I have not only gained strength and opened my body up but my ability to identify how I can best do things for my own well-being and decide what courses of action to pursue, have also started to evolve. Something definitely shifted in my perspective once I went beyond accepting and started cherishing the use of props.
Having learned how to work with enriched sources of information made working without the additional information, unbearable. Since I remembered what working with props felt, I tried mimicking practicing with props, but those memories were very quickly muddled by what my body remembered when I used to practice without any context.
I think I finally have some small inkling of what Annie Carpenter (one of my teachers) meant when she told me that all the information in the world is quite useless without the practice of discernment: yogis need to be given opportunities to take ownership of their practices by being allowed and eventually encouraged to make decisions about their own practices.
Marc Macadaeg is co-founder, Faculty Head and senior yoga teacher at Urban Ashram Yoga. His unique style of teaching vinyasa has attracted many practicioners who are looking to deepen their asana practice and their understanding of yoga. He has been a pioneer of the signature FNR (Flexibility Not Required) Program of Urban Ashram Yoga. Together with his co-teachers, Marc Macadaeg created a new teacher training program, Align&Refine Yoga focusing on the practice and educating students to be more skillful and teachers to be more equipped to guide their students through their asana practice. He is the content creator and head trainer of Align&Refine Yoga. Follow @alignandrefineyoga